Washington, DC — Only 10 years ago, Liberia began to emerge from a quarter-century of instability, punctuated by what Liberians call World Wars I and II. The names reflect the lived realities of two generations - widespread atrocities by feuding factions, child soldiers drugged and forced to fight, women raped and dismembered, and nationwide destruction of infrastructure. More than 250,000 people are thought to have died, out of a population of less than three million. Two-thirds of the population was in near-constant flight. When President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf took office in 2006, there was hardly a bridge, power line, dam, factory or paved road. Now, many of the children who grew up on the run - including those who had a chance to build lives elsewhere - are back in Liberia, where a sense of purpose is replacing the trauma they experienced.
Gyude (pronounced ju'-day) Moore has found his place in the office of the president, where he is deputy chief of staff and head of the President's Delivery Unit. In a recent interview with AllAfrica, he talks about the chance to attack the poverty still dominating the lives of most Liberians.
Liberians who were alive during the war years have so many stories - and sometimes those stories explain who they are now. What's one of yours?
I'm from Cape Palmas, the southeastern-most cape of Liberia; very beautiful and very nice. All the kids - thinking back, it was an amazing time. It sounds boring, but it was a great time!
During the war we fled to Cote D'Ivoire. The first time we left, my mother had just given birth to set of twins - a boy and a girl - and we walked a very long distance. I carried the boy, she carried the girl, and we reached the village where we were going to hide. I saw thousands of people on the road, just walking, and it was dark. I was calling out to my mom, and she heard my voice and answered. I took the second baby from her. But the second baby, the girl, was frail.
I have told this story a couple of times but…[pauses]. We were sleeping in a dark hut, and my mom was crying because the baby, my sister, had passed away. My mom was trying to cry quietly so she wouldn't wake the other kid. There was a sense of helplessness, because I was the oldest boy - might have been 14 or 15 at the time - and there was this sense of responsibility that I could not protect my mother.
The next morning, we walked through the bush to go and cross into Cote D'Ivoire, and I made a decision, but it was pretty vague, that someday I will be a big man and I will make sure that other kids and their mothers do not go through that experience. So when I came to the U.S. to go to school, that's what drove me. Now looking back, it seems that I have always been coming back.
And now you head the President's Delivery Unit. Give an example of what you do.
We set out to monitor and track development projects happening in the country - ranging from ports, to roads to energy infrastructure. Once we began to monitor progress, it became necessary to remove bottlenecks that occurred, and the job merged into driving delivery. So on behalf of the president, we do not simply monitor the progress of development projects, we drive delivery. Every two weeks, we brief the president and the vice president, and whoever they decide to invite, on the progress of these projects. All have definite cut off dates, and our responsibility is to ensure that nothing takes away from those dates.
Restoring electricity is one of Liberia's many development goals, along with providing jobs, education and health care. Where does power fit into that set of aims, and is there meaningful progress?
If we are going to rebuild our country, we have to provide energy that is affordable and reliable. The core of that is the restoration of the hydro-plant at Mount Coffee. Before the war, it was 64 megawatts, but we've done enough optimization so that now it's going to be 80 megawatts.
The plan is by December 2015 the first power will flow from Mount Coffee. It means we have to keep a tight schedule. Before some of the works can begin, we have to pay resettlement for people's properties and crops that are affected. As long as that money is not paid, the work cannot go forward. There was a point where, during the war, the basin at the hydro plant got emptied, and people planted rubber trees in the basin. Now we're going to flood the basin again. You can't just cut down people's trees; you have to repay them. You have to give them something.
The initial price set by the ministry of agriculture was so high we were going to be paying somewhere around $27 million. There was no way we could have afforded that. So we worked with the PDU, worked with the Ministry of Agriculture to say that in instances where these crops occur illegally, either on private lands or on public lands, here is the range of what you will be paid. By adjusting that figure, it became affordable. That's part of what we're doing that allows the project to move forward.
Before the interview began, you mentioned a Japanese-funded road as an example of PDU intervention to move projects to completion. Would you say something about that?
Yes, sure. So Madame President visited Japan, and one of the commitments we got from the Japanese government is to pave 13 kilometres of road from the Freeport of Monrovia to Redlight [a peri-urban commercial area].
One of the things the Japanese government required is that because this road goes through a heavily populated area, there's about 416 structures that have to be demolished - and all of those 416 families or owners have to be reimbursed. As the time drew closer, we had to find a way to get the ministry of finance to give public works the money needed to do this. So a part of it is: public works is going to go to the ministry of finance and say, "We need the money to be able to pay for this". Well, the ministry of finance has many demands from all over the government.
So the PDU arises and says, "Public works is going to need that money because of the implications. This is about $60 million that the Japanese government is going to be spending, and we cannot have any action that impedes progress of this work. Stuff like that. In other instances, we arrange a meeting with the president and two ministers, because we believe that those two ministers meeting with the president will enhance the operation of government.
Even though Liberia hopes to produce much of its domestic energy needs from renewable sources, exploration for exploitable deposits of offshore petroleum is underway. Does this risk being a curse rather than a blessing, because of potentially large earnings that distort the economy and fuel corruption?
Yes, it does. But I think we are going about this the right way.
So, first, there was a petroleum policy developed that was endorsed by the cabinet, and then a draft petroleum law was done. There was a wide range of consultation by the government on this. NOCAL went around the country. They went to the US and other places in West Africa to consult the Liberian diaspora. There was one trip to Europe. The legislature also went around the country consulting with the people on what to do.
Mainly the intent is, we recognize that someday this resource is going to run out. When it does, what next? And in the exploitation of this, how do we protect our habitats? How do we protect the environment? We believe these wide-ranging consultations will help us with a law that may not be perfect but closest to best practices. If you were to come to Liberia today, you go to Nimba, you go to Bong Mines [location of iron ore mining], you'll see these massive holes where mountains used to be.
We cannot allow the same thing to happen with these new resources.
That's what we are trying to avoid.
OK, that's for the future. But can you point to things the government is delivering now?
Definitely some benefits have started to spread. We went to West Point - West Point in Liberia is a slum area. People are just jam-packed living together. My unit goes out into the neighborhood and does presentations on what the government is doing. How many roads we are doing, hospitals, whatever it is. And after we talked about the roads, a guy was like," Well, I can't cook roads. I can't eat roads." And I'm like "Yeah, you can't eat the road. But one of the three killers of infants is respiratory diseases. Every time we pave the road, we reduce the amount of dust particles in the air, and that's less money you spend taking your kids to the hospital. That's money that is available for you to do something else with it. And every time we pave the road, we change the cost of transportation, because it's cheaper now to move across. That's money saved. Every time we pave the road, people who live there, there's less money they have to spend on maintenance of their cars and their motorcycles. So by paving the roads, we immediately increase the value for people who own any property in that area, so now when they sell their property, they get way more than they would have otherwise.
When we started connecting people to the electricity grid, we started with low- income families, because it was always understood that people in the middle-income bracket could buy generators. Low-income people couldn't buy a generator. And in instances where they did, it was killing them. Because they're afraid it'll get stolen, they will put the generator in the house with them and carbon monoxide was killing whole families. So it made sense to us that if we were going to connect anybody first to the grid, it had to be people who lived in poorer communities.
We're not simply putting electricity in the cities and towns. We are also doing min-hydro projects to provide energy for rural schools, for rice mills for farmers. We've done a hydrological survey of the whole country to find sites where we can do mini-hydro. We've found 15. We're going to try to do at least two a year.
When President Sirleaf took over, there were about six doctors in the country. Are we where we want to be? Absolutely not, but we aren't where we used to be. There are now at least two doctors in every county. Dr. [Walter] Gwenegale, the health minister, is executing a plan where every Liberian will not have to go more than five kilometres to get to a health center. That is the benefit of having peace - a government that is providing services for its people.
The intent is to continue to expand our health and education system.
When President Sirleaf took over, we made primary education free and compulsory. Well, enrollment skyrocketed, and it was like, "Oops! Who are going to teach these people?" So we opened rural teacher training centers. Peace Corps came back to Liberia and as of today, there are Peace Corps volunteers in high schools across the country.
So yes, benefits are accruing to the people, and over time they will accrue much faster and much better than they are now.
Do the challenges wear you down - especially when you hear complaints like "We can't eat roads"?
It gets frustrating, but I have come to understand that the frustration of the average person is understandable. It's been ten years since the war ended. People want peace dividends. I go to work in a government-issued car. For the man out in the street who still has to send his kid to school, still does not have a job, has to provide for his family, it's like, "Look, there is no war going on anymore, how come I'm not getting the benefits of all this?" And then he sees me passing, going to work, and of course, there is understandable resentment - a feeling that this peace only delivers benefits to a certain class of people.
So it's understandable, but that's why we do what we do. That's why at 75 years old, the president leaves office at 10:30 - 11pm at night.
That's why on a Friday night I'm still in office at 10:30, 11 pm.
Sometimes 12 midnight, 1am we are in the office. Ultimately it's like a construction project. You spend an annoying amount of time on the foundation that you expect to build a big and steady structure on, and that's what we are doing. But in our case, we have to tear down an old foundation. After a long period of war, people adapt to conflict, rather than to cooperation. Warren Buffet says something like - I don't know word for word - "Regardless of the amount of the talent and efforts, some things just take time." And this is one of those things: to rebuild the country, to reorient the minds of people towards living in peace.
Do you worry about the fragility of Liberia's post-conflict democracy? Your president is the subject of constant attack - from media and from politicians - that often appear to hinder the delivery of progress that you're after.
Democracies aren't perfect. I haven't heard anybody argue that their democracy is perfect. It's just that their dysfunctions are way better than others.
Ultimately, for democracies to work, you need an informed population.
And if we have been able to do what we have, with the level of understanding that the people have at the moment, I can only imagine that it's going to get better as time goes on. Like now, one of the things you will notice during every election, people running for office are not simply coming back and promising stuff. Before the elections, they are building libraries. They are fixing roads. They're providing scholarships. They're doing it to say, "Hey, when you vote for me, I'll do more than what I'm doing right now. And so sometimes, what we as the executive see as a belligerent legislature is simply people reflecting the aspirations of the people they represent. And that healthy tension - as much as the executive will find it annoying! - is what keeps democracy healthy.
And then there's the press, my goodness! I mean, we've erred on the side of caution. We've erred on the side of freedom on the radio and newspapers. And it's difficult - but what else? There's been a time in Liberia when people couldn't say anything about the government. They were put in jail.
And honestly, there are things happening in the government that we will not find out about if it was not for the press. The government is not perfect. The constant scrutiny of civil society and the press allows us to perform better. Finally, the government is not the sole repository of good ideas. There are other members of society who are not in the government who have good ideas. It's awesome to go on radio and have somebody say. "Everything you just said makes no sense, and let me tell you why". And then I'm forced to defend why we're doing the policies we are doing. For me, that's democracy. So the Liberian democracy is nascent, it's pretty young. But I think it's going to grow from strength to strength.
Human Resources - a Homecoming
What was the origin of the PDU and who does the work?
President Sirleaf is more than the president of Liberia; she's become a global figure. First and foremost, her responsibility is to the people who elected her, but we've got to share her with the world. And her travels have yielded benefits for the country. When she told former British Prime Minister Tony Blair that she needed to be able to harmonize her development priorities and how they are executed, he suggested she could have a PDU, just as he had a Prime Minister's Delivery Unit. I had just finished graduate studies at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, and when I came back to Liberia in August of 2009, there was the idea that this unit was going to be formed. Patrick Sendolo was then overseeing port-sector reform. So he beceme the first head of the PDU. When Patrick Sendolo got promoted to become Minister of Lands, Mines and Energy, I became head of the PDU and deputy chief of staff in the president's office.
Beyond the senior programme officers, we've recruited four young people who're recent graduates, young professionals. The intent is to match them with people like me, in a kind of mentor-mentee position. They came on as program assistants, they got promoted to program officers and each of them now has priorities they are following. We were initially focused on infrastructure, roads, ports, energy. But you have to imagine those as hardware. Eventually, you are going to start working on the software: health, education, services to people, regulatory quality. And so our newly-minted program officers are going to take those as their core priorities. They themselves are now going to have the opportunity to brief the president and the vice president directly. We think that's really, really important. A lot of mid-level managers and bureaucrats were either killed or fled during the war, and we need to replenish them if we are going to build a better country. This is one of the ways we do it.
And this is the really amazing thing; it's not just about Liberia - you go to Sierra Leone, you go to Nigeria, you go to Ghana. My father's generation, the people who came before us, when they went to the U.S, Europe, they stayed. Now, you have more and more people like me coming back to whatever country they came from. So yeah, lots of people like me, back home. That is the source of the encouragement, despite the immensity of the problems and the challenges we face.
Dr. Kingsley Moghalu, deputy governor of Nigeria's central bank, has written a book Emerging Africa: How the Global Economy's 'Last Frontier' Can Prosper and Matter. Among other things, it challenges the competing narratives that Africa is a mess or, conversely, that Africa has had a renaissance. He says Africa hasn't risen, but that it can, and he lays out a plan for making that happen.
What's your view on those differing narratives?
That Africa will rise. So I agree with him that we are, vis a vis the potential we have, underperforming. But that we will rise. We are rising.
It's impossible to build a country, to build a continent, to build an economy without peace. Throughout the 90s, the continent was on fire, for the reasons that we know well. People could not participate. People could not speak. Governments were not responsible to the people and were not responsive to their people, and people found other means [of pursuing change], because of frustration.
And the crazy things about wars, they don't end on schedule. And that killed us. That slowed us down. When I left Liberia, to be honest, I wasn't coming back. There was nothing. We went to school during that time as an end in itself, not as a means to an end. Kids just went to school because there was nothing else to do. Not because there was some hopeful future. There was all war, and you never knew you would live through the next phase of the war.
That's not happening anymore. Once we got peace and we got leadership that actually cares, we did a poverty reduction strategy and ran the government around reducing poverty. We are measuring performance.
Technocrats are appearing. Parents are willing to make sacrifices if there is the hope that their kids will have a better life than they had.
That's what is offered now to Africa. I think when I am an old man and I am explaining to young people that there used to be a time that for weeks we didn't have any electricity and they will be like "What!" I'm confident we are moving in the right direction. Not just Liberia but the continent.
I have a daughter, six years old. Someday I'm going to be able to proudly say to her that I was one of the people who along with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, rebuilt our destroyed country (laughs). It's been an incredibly fulfilling and amazing journey, and I'm bullish about the future of Africa and not just Liberia. I think this is our time.